Well, Froggie died today. Or maybe it was yesterday. Or was it the day before that? I don’t actually know for certain. My son, who was supposed to be getting dressed, but was more likely futzing around, suddenly shouted to me from the top of the stairs. It wasn’t one of those bored Mom, I’m out of socks calls, but a more urgent, a more panicked call. A call that says, Mommy, get up here right now! There’s a dead animal in my room!
Yep. I’ve been round this block before: In the course of seventeen years, my family’s probably lost an entire school of fish—the first when my eldest, then six, decided to take the goldfish she’d just won at the carnival on a personalized tour of her bedroom in the palm of her hand. I picture that poor fish flopping on my daughter’s palm, gaping for water, my daughter stroking its dried scales with an index finger and scolding, “Now calm down, Goldie. We’re almost there.”
We also lost a hermit crab we believed to be molting until husband picked up his shell to check his progress and, instead of the skin he’d shed falling away, the entire body spilled from the shell. And after several years with my family, our beloved dog developed severe arthritis and had to be put to sleep. As did a cat we adopted, a cat who inexplicably despised my family. After one year of living on the periphery of our lives, coming out to eat and drink and to inspect her cat box, she developed liver failure. And just a month ago, Hammy the Hamster died, the pet store never having informed us that hamsters are prone to developing cancerous goiters in their necks. But that’s another story.
I sighed. Last August, my son plucked Froggie from the banks of a nearly creek and plunked him into a ten-gallon tank he would share with a half-dozen fish. During the summer and fall, Froggie dined on fresh-caught ants. And when winter set in, my son purchased mealworms, live mealworms he was advised by that same pet store to keep in the refrigerator, of all places, to ensure the worms remained in their dormant (let’s call it what it is: half-frozen) state. Last month, after Hammy’s demise, my son lavished extra attention on Froggie, making him a new habitat in his own twenty-gallon tank, a giant shell serving as swimming hole.
The swimming hole dried up.
So, apparently, did Froggie.
I headed upstairs. My son stood in his pajamas, bare feet curled over the top step. “Is he dead, Mommy?” He followed me into his bedroom.
I approached the tank cautiously. Peered in over the edge. Froggie lay on his back, arms and legs outstretched, white belly exposed in surrender.
“I think so,” I whispered.
“Was it my fault?” He took my hand. Gave it a little squeeze. “I’d been meaning to give him water for two days, but I kept forgetting...” His lower lip trembled. His eyes filled with tears. We glanced again at little Froggie lying on his back.
“Look what a nice life he had with you!” Stuck inside a tank, slowly dying of thirst. “And look how long he lived!” Six months, to be exact. I glanced around his room. The caterpillars tucked inside their honey jar seemed to part the silk of their cocoons to cast accusing glances my way. The fish gathered at one side of the tank, gaping mouths forming the words: Liar! Liar!
“But was it my fault?”
Why did my son ask this? Why did he seek assurances from me when he was certain of his guilt? Did he want me to tell him the truth? Or did he want me to lie, in order to preserve his image of the person he thought he should be, the person who didn’t inadvertently kill frogs?
“Maybe it was just his time.”
I looked at my hands, half-expecting a white mark to suddenly spring up upon my fingernails. Growing up, my sisters and I called those marks white lie marks.: Tell a lie, the story went, and you’d get a white mark on one of your fingernails. When my nails had one mark—or, worse, several—I’d turn my fingertips under lest the world see the evidence of my transgressions. But when my nails grew long and I could cut away the evidence, I flashed them with abandon, advertising my clear conscience.
And then I discovered nail polish. And then, it was easy to cover up my lies.
* * *
Seemingly harmless, pesky little things. Easily waved away. We use them, not so much for harm, but for self-preservation, to allow us to continue to see ourselves as we’d like to be. White lies are a varnish, protecting us from having to expose our faults and vulnerabilities, keeping the world from staring down at us lying there helplessly belly-up. Co-conspirators, we casually trade white lies so that we may go through the world with gentle blinders on. With the balm of the white lie, we don’t have to confront ourselves. White lies enable status quo.
“Does this dress look too tight?” I whisper to my husband. I have to whisper, of course, because, now that the dress is actually zipped, I can no longer take more than a teaspoonful of air into my lungs.
After twenty years of marriage, my husband knows his lines cold: “You look beautiful.”
“Thank you,” I gasp, taking teeny steps down the stairs so I don’t tear the skirt.
Sooner or later, that dress isn’t going to tear: That dress is going to explode, pieces of zipper and silk, buttons and thread uncontrollably going off in all directions leaving me to pick up the detritus and weave a new version of truth.
* * *
I lied to my son, to keep him from having to feel the pain of his neglect. If I had to do it again, I’d tell my son, “Yeah, I think it was your fault Froggie died.” I’d let him feel the weight of that burden; to know the feelings of guilt.
And the next time I ask my husband if I’m looking fat, I hope he’s completely honest with me.
Could somebody pass me the nail polish?
Labels: Growing up, Raising Children